The merciless coastline of northern Namibia has been the ill-wanted deathbed of many aquatic creatures.
If dropped off by the Skeleton Coast – and if the name hasn’t scared you off already – the sight would resemble that of a coastal graveyard. Across the 500 kilometres (310 miles) from the Ugab River to the Angolan highlands, the bones of animals lie strewn in the soft sand, like a finished plate of barbeque ribs. They are accompanied by hundreds of rusty shipwrecks. Each has its own story. “There are mostly whale bones and a lot of seal bones,” says Volker Jahnke, of Desert Magic Tours Namibia. “Every now and then you also find human skeletons.”
The Skeleton Coast is the Bermuda Triangle of the South Atlantic Ocean, but without the myth. Here the evidence of the past lies bare. Some shipwrecks are measured to be 500 years old, and in some places, only the mast sticks up from the sand. Others are wholly visible and in remarkably good condition. As for the human skeletons, disagreement exists over their age. “Archaeologists are roaming the areas,” Jahnke says. “Some say they are 800 years old; others say 10,000. They never agree with each other.”
The weather conditions here are untypical of Africa. The cold Benguela ocean current drifts in from the sea, clashing with the extreme heat of the Namib Desert. Dense ocean fogs cloud the coastline for much of the year. It made it an inhospitable territory to live in. The Bushmen of Namibia, not acclimatised to such conditions, called it ‘The land God made in anger’. Others, such as Portuguese sailors, branded it ‘The Gates of Hell’.
And indeed, the climate did sailors no favours. Ship after ship crashed on the coast, for never to return. “They say one reason was the ordinary instruments, the sandbanks and the thick fog,” says Jahnke. “The radars in old times didn’t reflect the sandbanks; only the mountains. People came too close to the shore.” Once they were stranded, the strong currents created a surf so powerful that smaller ships found it impossible to get back out on the sea.
History tells of several sailors trapped in this desert wasteland. Once captured, they did not stand a chance. For hundreds of kilometres, the landscape offers nothing but sand, dry mountains and rugged canyons. They walked for days searching for food and water. None are likely to have found it.
Surprisingly, some life does exist along the coastline. Species such as the black rhino, lion, cheetah, zebra and giraffe have all adapted to the harsh terrain. Even elephants roam the area, with some apparently having being filmed surfing down sand dunes.
Most of the area is declared national park, with the southern section available to visitors. Taking anything out of the park is prohibited. Several tour operators offer camping trips lasting for around a week, where tents are plugged down in the sand along the coastline. You will most likely ride a 4WD. Just make sure you have enough fuel.
Photos: Angel’s Gate Photography, kbremote, Valdecasas [all via Shutterstock.com].